When is a hippo not a hippo? That’s not a riddle but was the central question in a legal battle in the United States. And for the first time, a judge ruled that an animal could be recognized as a “person.”
Drug kingpin Pablo Escobar smuggled the hippos into Columbia in the 1980s to be part of his zoo, U.S. World and News Report said. But after his death in 1993, the massive beasts escaped into the Magdalena River and have caused serious problems to that ecosystem as they have no natural predators there. They’ve also multiplied. And multiplied. And multiplied. Experts estimate there are between 65 and 80 so-called “cocaine hippos” in the country. The Columbian government debated whether to kill or sterilize the animals.
In the United States, the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued the Columbian government, asking a federal judge in Ohio to grant the animals “interested person” status. This would give the hippos legal rights only afforded to people. And the judge agreed in a landmark ruling.
“The court’s order authorizing the hippos to exercise their legal right to obtain information in the United States is a critical milestone in the broader animal status fight to recognize that animals have enforceable rights,” Animal Legal Defense Fund executive director Stephen Wells said in a statement.
The ruling allows wildlife experts to argue on the hippo’s behalf in favor of sterilization over euthanization, the group said, according to PEOPLE.
And like hippos, there is a very big ‘but’ with the ruling. That’s because U.S. Courts have no jurisdiction in Columbia.
Columbia Can Still Kill The Pablo Escobar’s Hippos
This verdict has no impact in Columbia, but it could have major implications in the United States, CBS News reported.
“The ruling has no impact in Colombia because they only have an impact within their own territories. It will be the Colombian authorities who decide what to do with the hippos and not the American ones,” said Camilo Burbano Cifuentes, a criminal law professor at the Universidad Externado de Colombia.
But the ruling could be a big step toward animal rights in the United States.
“This really is part of a bigger movement of advocating that animals’ interest be represented in court,” Christopher Berry, the lead attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund told CBS. “We’re not asking to make up a new law. We’re just asking that animals have the ability to enforce the rights that have already been given to them.”
This isn’t the first time an animal rights group tried this tactic.
A group tried to get three elephants at a petting zoo personhood status in 2017. But a Connecticut judge called the request “wholly frivolous,” CBS said. Judges in several other jurisdictions came to similar conclusions in other cases.
Berry, the ALDF’s attorney, said this most recent ruling reinforces laws already on the books.
“Legal personhood is just the ability to have your interest heard and represented in court,” Berry said. “It’s about enforcing rights they already have under animal cruelty laws and other protection laws.”